News of the long-awaited care review announced by Boris on 24 November 2019 came almost one year after I had returned to children’s regulated care as a provider of two small children’s homes. Like many, I welcomed the government’s pledge to review the care system to make sure that all care placements and settings provide children and young adults with the support they need.
I had resigned from a previous senior management position in regulated children’s social care in May 2017 to manage supported accommodation for care leavers and during the summer of 2019, I was approached by the producer of BBC News Night who wanted to know if might contribute to a program about the use of unregulated accommodation. After explaining that I believe Ofsted style regulation has been a significant factor in the demise of children’s social care and more of the same was not the solution, it was clear that my views did not converge with the aims of the program and the invitation was not progressed. It is not that I think young people should be dumped in accommodation that is not fit for purpose.
In fact, my view is quite the opposite which is why in 2002 I set up supported accommodation for care leavers as an alternative to the use of bed & breakfast which was common practice at the time. Then in 2009 my business partner and I set up and managed two other projects offering care leavers the opportunity to live in their own self-contained accommodation, in a small community with 24hr on-site support provided by suitably qualified and experienced staff. The service was not designed to provide care as defined by Ofsted or to support young people under 16. Until recent years, we were never asked to, we never have and never would. That does not mean we don’t care about the young people we support or that we fail to protect them from the perils that exist in society. It means that we ease them into the unavoidable realities of adult life through a risk-aware, not risk-averse, living-learning experience that supports their rights and promotes responsibility for themselves and others.
Whilst I accept that many people believe Ofsted style regulation prevents poor standards and improves the quality of care, it is not a view I share. If that were that simple, the outcomes of care leavers would not still be lagging behind the general population twenty years later. Here, it is worth noting that the main impetus for regulation was the privatisation movement, which began with the Conservative governments of the 1980s. Most of the nationalised industries had statutory monopolies which required regulation to prevent abuse of that power via higher prices or lower standards of service than there would have been in competitive markets. Two decades later when independent regulation was introduced to social care the main purpose was to provide a level playing field between public, voluntary, and private care providers. The problem is that there is a natural tendency for organisations to morph into institutions, their rules and behaviour then become inflexible, they become closed and secretive, and resist change. Attention was drawn to what happens when regulators behave in this way in 2014 by Dave Richards and Martin Smith https://www.regulation.org.uk/library/2014-Richards_and_Smith Institutions_and_the_Banality_of_Evil.pdf. Then a few years later the case for regulatory change was made by Christopher Hodges and Ruth Steinholtz in ‘Ethical Business Practice and Ethical Regulation’, the book they co-authored and published in 2017 in which they explain the science that supports a behavioural and values-based approach to compliance and enforcement.
But unfortunately, it is still all too often the preferred solution of the establishment is to redirect and wrongly attribute responsibility for failed policies without sufficient interrogation of cause. An histroical example of this is the case of Peter Righton, a well-connected childcare expert who gave “considerable assistance” to a government report in 1970. This led to ‘major reforms’ of 1970’s children’s homes and opened the doors to an epidemic of child abuse during the 1970s and 1980s with the likes of Frank Beck, Tony Latham, and others also being awarded ‘expert status’. At the same time, the attention of the government was focused on rolling back the welfare state, and it is in this scandal-infused climate that the professionalisation and marketisation of children’s social care that the preference for ‘cheaper’ family placements emerged.
A decade later institutional child abuse scandals that reached media attention in 1989 served this agenda well. Revelations of abuse allegations made by 57 residents and former residents against Ralph Morris proprietor of Castle Hill School in Ludlow and investigations in Staffordshire, North Wales, and Leicestershire evidenced the need for reform. But not long after the Care Standards Act 2000 reached the statute book what began as a ‘mixed economy’ intended to improve quality and choice became a magnet for short-term private investment. This was not an accident it was by design and a small number of large companies now dominate the market. But within a decade of the Act and three years after Ofsted became responsible for the registration and inspection of children’s services, the media broke the news of the Rotherham grooming gangs. Rochdale and numerous other inquiries followed and once again children’s homes suffered the brunt of blame even though many caregivers on the front-line had been raising concerns for years.
The media has shown little interest in the deeper underlying causes of these atrocities or the abuses of Jimmy Saville or child abuse in the Catholic church and elsewhere. The Jay report illustrates that victims were treated with contempt, so were their parents and caregivers but these stories were of no interest to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and they have not reached the front pages of newspapers or television screens. To do so would expose those in positions of power and authority who ignored the interests of the weak and the vulnerable, and those charged with the duty to keep them safe. Sadly, it seems there is still little genuine appetite for truth or motivation to move away from a culture of secrecy to a culture of openness, transparency, and true accountability.
Yet in a commercial climate where there is so much is at stake the value of a good Ofsted rating and even better an outstanding one is not to be underestimated any more than a willingness to hide faults that might adversely affect this. The belief that regulation prevents poor practice and promotes cost-effective services ignores the potential for unethical regulation and business practice, and the tendency for organisations to be more interested in their own survival than those they are supposed to serve. This is most evident in the increased use of compromise agreements by companies and declined freedom of information requests by Ofsted.
At an accountability hearing on 10 November 2020, a member of the education select committee noted there had been a significant increase in legal costs and asked if Ofsted would be willing to share the reasons why costs had been increasing. Yvette Stanley National Director of Children’s Social Care replied, “Over the last two years we have undertaken more regulatory work and pushed things through the system. Even in lockdown, we have cancelled a number of children’s homes and we are finding providers are more litigious than they were historically… Tribunal work, litigation generally, and our costs in supporting our work for ICSA would probably be, off the top of my head, the three issues. We could always come back to you with a written response with colleagues who are closer to the detail.”
Considering this was an accountability hearing the absence of interrogation evident in the minutes of this meeting, reveals just how easy it is to avoid public scrutiny and shows there was no interest in the reasons why providers are, “more litigious than they were historically.” The most disturbing aspect of this is that it completely ignores the possibility that Ofsted may be at fault and exposes bias that may also explain why attempts to raise concerns with the Children’s Minister and MP’s about the unfair disqualification of caregivers has fallen on deaf ears. By the time the ‘Independent Care Review’ was announced on 15 January 2021, I had personally witnessed the proposed refusal of three children’s home manager applications.
Of these, the first two applicants were disqualified from the children’s workforce. The third was successfully appealed following heartfelt pleas for mercy from children living in the home, professional representation from their social workers, and reliable testimony from an accompanying notetaker that revealed the harsh conditions and hostile interrogation techniques the applicant was subjected to during the fit person interview. All were long-serving, DBS cleared, suitably qualified, and experienced employees. One had been the responsible individual of the company for 12 years without any steps being taken by Ofsted to terminate this. There are now 461 signatures from people all over the country on a petition to end the unfair disqualification of caregivers which shows there is genuine concern about Ofsted’s approach to the fit person process. But for many of those affected, the cost of legal representation which can be anywhere between ten and fifteen thousand pounds limits their access to legal redress. If this were not the case, I suspect Ofsted’s legal bill would be much higher.
I had hoped the ‘Independent Care Review’ would provide an opportunity for a thorough exploration of the environment in which children’s services are provided and what actually separates good outcomes from poor outcomes from all perspectives. But, sadly not it seems. Everything about this review, from its hand-picked chair, the experts by experience panel, limits imposed on time, and the absence of meaningful opportunities for critical debate, strongly suggests to me that the government does not want to know what really goes on in children’s social care, anymore now than it has done throughout the last five decades and I have a collection of fob off letters to prove it.